BROADCASTING: BT acquires ESPN’s TV channels

BT Group and ESPN have agreed a multi-million pound deal that will see the telecoms giant acquire ESPN’s UK and Ireland TV channels.

Comprising of ESPN and ESPN America, BT will also take on ESPN’s current sports rights portfolio, including live FA Cup, Clydesdale Bank Scottish Premier League, UEFA Europa League and German Bundesliga games.

The transaction, subject to regulatory clearance, is expected to be completed at the end of July after which BT will continue to operate at least one ESPN-branded channel which is expected to form part of the BT Sport TV package that will be launched this summer.

However, ESPN’s popular archive sports channel ESPN Classic is expected to cease transmission in the UK after seven years as it not included as part of the BT/ESPN deal.

Additionally, the deal will allow BT to continue to show a host of US sports currently shown on ESPN America, including NCAA College Basketball, NCAA College Football and NASCAR.

The ESPN channels will be broadcast from BT Sport’s new home in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford.

Until the transition occurs in July, the service for current subscribers to the ESPN channels across all television platforms remains unchanged.

The deal will enable BT Sport customers to see live coverage of the FA Cup for the 2013/14 season, the Clydesdale Bank Scottish Premier League until the end of the 2016/17 season and the UEFA Europa League and German Bundesliga through to the end of the 2014/15 season.

These join the broadcast rights that BT Sport has previously announced, including 38 live Barclays Premier League matches – including 18 of the top clashes – in each of the next three seasons, beginning August 2013.

There will also be 69 live Aviva Premiership Rugby matches for the next four seasons; and up to 800 hours per season of live women’s tennis, including the TEB BNP Paribas WTA Championships.

Marc Watson, chief executive of television, BT Retail, said: “We are delighted to have reached agreement with ESPN for the acquisition of their UK channels business and that we have been able to add some exciting new sports rights to the ones we already have.

“The FA Cup, Scottish Premier League and Europa League rights will allow us to offer customers of BT Sport even more quality live football, including our first games from the Scottish top flight and our first European competition rights.

“There will also be the best of US sports available courtesy of this deal, which will further broaden the appeal of BT Sport.”

Disney, owners of ESPN’s worldwide operations, revealed in February that it was “exploring an exit” from the UK TV sports market after ESPN lost several big broadcast rights deals including live Premier League football and Premiership rugby union.

The US sports broadcasting giant entered the UK market in 2009 after stepping in to claim live rights to Premier League football following the demise of Setanta Sports.

Having built up a modest portfolio and following during its four years on-air, its UK future was thrown into doubt in the aftermath of the last Premier League rights auction when BT themselves secured the rights to two packages, in a surprise move which caught out all observers.

Despite the closing down of its UK channel, ESPN will continue to own and operate its existing digital media businesses which include ESPN.co.uk, ESPNcricinfo, ESPNFC, ESPNscrum, ESPNF1 and broadband streaming service ESPN Player.

ESPN Classic has been excluded from the proposed transaction, with ESPN proposing to close down the channel in the UK and Europe, as well as the rest of its non-UK ESPN America TV businesses.

Ross Hair, managing director, ESPN – Europe, Middle East and Africa, said: “We could not be more proud of the TV channels built and nurtured by our talented team over the past four years.

“The value of that hard work is reflected in this deal with BT and the continuation of ESPN on television screens across the UK and Ireland.

“The same passion, commitment and innovation will be at the heart of how we develop our strong digital media business into the future.”

ESPN employs around 100 staff for its UK and Ireland operation and all of them have been offered the chance to transfer to BT Sport, but it is unclear how many of the current on-air team – including presenter Ray Stubbs and commentator Jon Champion – will be transfering across to the new operation.

Until the deal is completed at the end of July, the services provided to the existing ESPN subscribers remain unchanged.

For further news and updates from BT Sport, visit: www.btsport.com.

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